Study Guide

Uncle Vanya Passivity

By Anton Chekhov

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MARIYA VASILYEVNA: [to her son] You're just blaming your former beliefs for something… But they're not to blame, you are. You forget that beliefs alone are nothing, a dead letter… What you needed was action. (1.229-32)

Mariya doesn't appear much in the play, but when she is allowed to speak, she lays the smack down. Speaking to her son, Vanya, she tells it like it is: that he had the chance to change his life, if he had taken action, but he didn't. In other words, you made your bed, now lie in it.

VOYNITSKY: If you could see your face, your movements… What indolence you have towards life! Ah, what indolence! (1.343-44)

Speaking to Yelena, Vanya picks on her "indolence," which is another word for laziness and passivity. According to Vanya, Yelena doesn't take any action, but rather has a passive attitude toward life. She doesn't make anything happen but just lets it happen to her instead.

SONYA: [shrugging her shoulders] There's plenty to do. You just need to want to.


SONYA: Help run the estate, teach, treat the sick. Is that not enough? When Papa and you weren't here, Uncle Vanya and I ourselves went to market to sell the flour.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: I can't. And it isn't interesting. (3.18-24)

Hey, here's some activity! Sonya seems to be the only one who does anything in the whole play, but she just doesn't have the powers of persuasion to get anyone to join her. It's like she tells Yelena, "you just need to want to." And no one seems to want to. They would rather complain than lift a finger.

SONYA: [...] You're bored, you can't find a role for yourself, and boredom and inactivity are infectious. Look: Uncle Vanya does nothing and just follows you round like a shadow, I've left my work and come running to you to talk. I've got lazy, I can't do it! (3.30-34)

Sonya isn't the only one to notice that Yelena is kind of like a black hole, sucking everyone into her lazy way of being. She seems to think of the passivity as a contagious disease, that everyone is catching from her stepmother. And perhaps it's true; maybe if Serebryakov and Yelena showed up in a flurry of activity everyone else would be inspired.

SONYA: [...] No, uncertainty is better… There's still hope… (3.104-05)

When Sonya asks her stepmother to help her find out whether Astrov has feelings for her, it seems like a reasonable request, even if it's something most of us stopped doing in junior high. But what's really weird is her statement after they've made their plan: she'd rather not know, because then she can still fool herself with hope rather than have her answer. It's living in a fantasy world, plain and simple.

ASTROV: We have here a decline, which is the consequence of an impossible struggle for existence; a degeneration arising from stagnation, ignorance, a total lack of self-awareness [...]. (3.179-82)

Astrov's diagnosis isn't for a person, it's for society in general. And according to him, the social sickness is basically passivity. The lack of knowledge and self-awareness means that people are stagnant, like a smelly, old pond. Their lack of action causes the "decline" that Astrov is talking about.

MARIYA VASILYEVNA: Jean, don't contradict Aleksandr. Believe me, he knows what's good and what's bad for us better than we do. (3.370-71)

We were starting to like Mariya, but then she goes and says something like this. Anyone who would sign their entire life over to someone else, control over everything from the amount of grocery money they have to whether or not they have a place to live, is not really in charge of their own destiny.

VOYNITSKY: [...] You have destroyed my life! I haven't lived, I haven't lived! Thanks to you I wasted, I destroyed the best years of my life! You are my worst enemy! (3.434-38)

Vanya, Vanya, Vanya. He's so melodramatic, so sure of his accusations against Serebryakov, that he's completely unable to see his own responsibility in what's happening in his life. He doesn't realize that his own passivity, his going with the flow rather than making real decisions, is what makes him his own worst enemy.

TELEGIN: [...] So, Marina Timofeyevna, they were fated not to live here. Fated… A disposition of fate. (4.22-23)

Telegin and Marina are minor characters who don't truly intervene in the play's action. But this attitude that they're displaying here, where they are happy that Serebryakov and Yelena are gone but see it as a matter of fate rather than a result of a series of actions, shows the passivity that burns Chekhov up.

SONYA: [...] You've known no joys in your life, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait… We shall rest… [Hugs him.] We shall rest! (4.358-60)

Okay, just so you know, "rest" is basically code for "die". Sonya is telling her uncle that if he'll just wait around and keep doing what he's always done, which has made him completely unhappy, someday, when he's dead, he'll finally be at peace. This is the end of the play, so it's a really hard-hitting portrait of a passive mindset.

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